An Introduction to Native American Literature
American literatures embrace the memories of creation stories, the tragic wisdom of native ceremonies, trickster narratives, and the outcome of chance and other occurrences in the most diverse cultures in the world. These distinctive literatures, eminent in both oral performances and in the imagination of written narratives, cannot be discovered in reductive social science translations or altogether understood in the historical constructions of culture in one common name. Vizenor 1)
Since the end of the 15th century, the migration of Europeans to America, and their importation of Africans as slaves, has led to centuries of conflict and adjustment between Old and New World societies. Europeans created most of the early written historical record about Native Americans after the colonists’ immigration to the Americas. 3 Many Native cultures were matrilineal; the people occupied lands for use of the entire community, for hunting or agriculture.
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Europeans at that time had patriarchal cultures and had developed concepts of individual property rights with respect to land that were extremely different. The differences in cultures between the established Native Americans and immigrant Europeans, as well as shifting alliances among different nations of each culture through the centuries, caused extensive political tension, ethnic violence and social disruption. The Native Americans suffered high fatalities from the contact with infectious Eurasian diseases, to which they had no acquired immunity.
Epidemics after European contact caused the greatest loss of life for indigenous populations. In 1830, the U. S. Congress passed the Indian Removal Act, authorizing the government to relocate Native Americans from their homelands within established states to lands west of the Mississippi River, accommodating European-American expansion. Perhaps the most important moment of governmental detribalization came with the passing of the Dawes Act in 1887 which set aside 160 acres for each Indian on the reservation, and opened the “leftovers” up for settlement.
According to the U. S. Bureau of the Census (1894), the Indian wars under the government of the United States have been more than 40 in number. They have cost the lives of about 19,000 white men, women and children, including those killed in individual combats, and the lives of about 30,000 Indians. Native Americans were thus pushed out from their own lands and were forced to live in small reservations assigned by the federal government who claimed that setting the Indians on the course to civilisation best ensured their survival.
Tribal customs were then forcibly altered and nomadic tribes became sedentary. All Native Americans felt the impact of the new reservation policies, which sought to isolate and contain Indians to make room for an expanding American nation. At the same time that Native Americans were being excluded from the nation, white Americans began to look to them as the source of a unique national identity and literature, distinct from European traditions.
Literature from the period depicting Indian characters was incredibly popular, and many works are still celebrated as classics, including James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans (1826), Catharine Maria Sedgwick’s Hope Leslie (1827), and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s Song of Hiawatha (1855), to name only a few. These texts employ the trope of the “disappearing Indian,” which represents the deaths of Indians as natural, similar to the changing of the seasons or the setting of the sun, rather than the result of political exclusion or social discrimination.
Thus the disappearance of Indians from the American social landscape was not only depicted within this body of writing but also implicitly approved of. At the same time the government sponsored authors and art programs; the proletarian themes of discovery, regionalism, and tourism were new forms of dominance over Native Americans. Therefore, early Native American authors wrote within a hostile political climate and in response to a dominant literary tradition that sentimentalized and condoned the death of Indians.
But they found the means to engage with their detractors by authoring their own accounts of Indians that challenged stereotypical beliefs, demanded equal political rights, and proved that Indians were neither disappearing nor silent. Native American authors have faithfully presented some of these issues of inherent native rights, the duplicities of federal policies, and the burdens of racial identities in their short stories and novels. Wynema by Sophia Alice Callahan published in 1891, was the first novel attributed to a Native American author.
Callahan, who was a mixedblood Creek, was aware of tribal issues at the time and therefore devoted most of her novel to native issues. Since then many novels by distinguished Native American authors have been published. One of the most important writers among Native Americans in the 1930’s was D’Arcy McNickle, a member of the Flathead tribe of Montana. His first novel The Surrounded was published in 1936, two years after the Indian Reorganization Act was passed near the end of the Depression in the United States. His novel is the poignant story of a mix-breed family and the tragedy of their exclusion from both the red and the white worlds.
Because of cultural misunderstandings, which begin between the Indian mother and Spanish father, suspicion, fear, and finally death take their children. The novel is a history of alienation. Kenneth Lincoln who coined the term Native American Rennaissance pointed out that in the late-1960s and early-1970s, a generation of Native Americans were coming of age who were the first of their tribe to receive a substantial English-language education, particularly outside of standard Indian boarding schools and in universities.
Conditions for Native people, while still very harsh, had moved beyond the survival conditions of the early half of the century. The beginnings of a project of historical revisionism, which attempted to document—from a Native perspective—the history of the invasion and colonization of the North American continent had inspired a great deal of public interest in Native cultures. During this time of change, a group of Native writers emerged, both poets and novelists, who in only a few years expanded the Native American literary canon.